Inspired by her own life story as a young immigrant from Israel, a coming-of-age novel by an editor of the New Jersey Jewish News is among the winners of the 2010 Sydney Taylor Book Awards for Jewish children’s literature.
Robin Friedman’s The Importance of Wings won in the older readers’ category when the awards were announced Jan. 12 by the Association of Jewish Libraries.
The chair of the awards committee said the “authenticity of the two Israeli families depicted in the novel” wowed the judges.
Friedman, who is special projects editor at NJJN, said she is “very honored” at being named a winner.
“I am thrilled that it was recognized as being authentic to the American-Jewish experience,” she said.
The book is the story of a 13-year-old girl named Roxanne whose family relocates to Staten Island. She idolizes Wonder Woman, loathes gym class, and hates the fact that she cannot style her hair into “wings,” a layered look made popular by the late actress Farrah Fawcett.
“I did not have wings,” Friedman lamented as she sat in her office at the newspaper. “I tried, but it just didn’t work.”
Her family made a move from Tel Aviv to a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn when she was five years old.
“It was very tough. We were poor. My sister and I slept on a fold-out couch in the living room,” she said. “I didn’t know any English, I didn’t have the right clothes, and my parents were more embarrassing than normal. They talked with funny accents and mispronounced words.”
Back in Israel, her father had been an engineer; her mother, a nurse. In New York, he became a taxi driver, she a nurse’s assistant. “They couldn’t pass the exams,” said Friedman.
After four years in Bensonhurst, her family moved to Staten Island. Friedman described the work as “a pseudo-autobiography. It is what I would have liked my childhood to have been like. It is a fantasy. If I could have written my own life, this is what it would have been.”
At the same time, she believes its theme is a universal one that speaks to more than just young Jewish kids.
“The message is: you should be yourself, no matter where you come from,” she said. “Do the best you can with what you have, and don’t idealize things that are not real.”
Curiously, her three previous novels have young males as their principal figures. Nothing is the story of a teenage Jewish boy in New Jersey who has bulimia. It was named a Notable Book for Teens last year by the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. The Girlfriend Project is about a boy “who is very shy and wants a girlfriend.”
On her website, www.robinfriedman.com, she describes her first novel, How I Survived My Summer Vacation, as “the story of a 13-year-old boy who wants to write a novel while fending off the stupidity of his friends.”
After writing Summer Vacation, Friedman ventured into the realm of non-fiction with a book called The Silent Witness. As a history major at Rutgers University, she was intrigued by Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. Watching it inspired her to tell the true story of Lula McLean, a little girl whose father was embroiled in the Battle of Bull Run at the war’s start and the surrender at Appomattox at its end.
Friedman, who has worked in the fields of advertising, publishing, and journalism since college, makes it a point to write in the mornings before heading to the office.
“The counterpoint is great. I write fiction, and the newspaper is non-fiction. It’s always in balance.”
Along with two other authors and one illustrator of books for Jewish young people, Friedman will receive her Sydney Taylor Book Award in July at the Association of Jewish Libraries convention in Seattle.